In the foot­steps of Shack­le­ton

Na­ture and his­tory thrill a band of would-be po­lar pi­o­neers on a great south­ern ad­ven­ture.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - Text and pho­tog­ra­phy by Chrissie Goldrick

Po­lar pi­o­neers – in­clud­ing our edi­tor-in-chief – ex­plore the frozen south.

LONG BE­FORE THE pen­guin rook­ery at Sal­is­bury Plain on the sub­antarc­tic is­land of South Ge­or­gia comes into view, it im­prints it­self on my ol­fac­tory sys­tem. The col­lec­tive odour of 250,000 king pen­guins wafts across the Bay of Isles to where my ship is an­chored for the night, ahead of a beach land­ing sched­uled for early the next morn­ing. De­spite the pun­gent wel­come, I can’t wait to get ashore. I’ve yearned to see this place ever since I saw a pho­to­graphic slide of it taken many years ago by New Zealand po­lar ex­plorer Colin Monteath. Shortly af­ter dawn I’m there, cau­tiously step­ping around the edge of a vast throng of el­e­gant me­tre-tall king pen­guins in smart black-and-white plumage with vi­brant daubs of or­ange-yel­low around the head and neck.

Among the adults are count­less par­tially f ledged subadults and re­cently hatched f luffy chicks. The birds cover every square me­tre of the grey shin­gle beach for as far as my eye can see and spread up onto green slopes ris­ing in the dis­tance, a ser­rated range of glaciated moun­tain peaks pro­vid­ing a dra­matic back­drop.

Whis­tles, whoops and alarm calls com­pete with the sound of crash­ing waves. Gi­ant south­ern pe­trels stalk the beach, ready to prey on un­guarded pen­guin chicks. Hun­dreds of play-fight­ing juvenile Antarc­tic fur seals chal­lenge un­wary tourists along the shore­line, while a few ele­phant seal pups are sighted, snooz­ing and snor­ing, obliv­i­ous to the sur­round­ing spec­ta­cle. The sight, sound and smell of a quar­ter of a mil­lion pen­guins cre­ate a sen­sory over­load that leaves me speech­less.

This is surely one of the planet’s great­est wildlife en­coun­ters.

Antarc­tic ap­peal

Whether it’s the prospect of nat­u­ral spec­ta­cles such as Sal­is­bury Plain, the lure of ice for­ma­tions whose grandeur and scale defy de­scrip­tion, or sim­ply the need to ven­ture be­yond com­fort zones, it’s hard to pin down what drives the de­sire to travel to Antarc­tica for a hol­i­day. It’s a cold, in­hos­pitable and po­ten­tially per­ilous place that can only be reached af­ter long f lights and tur­bu­lent sea cross­ings, and it’s pricey.

What­ever it is that draws peo­ple here, it al­most cer­tainly in­cludes the ro­mance of the Heroic Era – that roll call of names such as Shack­le­ton, Scott, Amund­sen and Maw­son whose ex­ploits are etched into the imag­i­na­tion of gen­er­a­tions and whose leg­ends only seem to grow with pass­ing years. The chance to fol­low in their foot­steps, bring their jour­nal en­tries to life and see those old sepia pho­tos re­alised in liv­ing colour has brought many a vis­i­tor to this ex­treme re­gion of the world. My Antarc­tic voy­age is no ex­cep­tion.

I’m aboard Po­lar Pi­o­neer to fol­low in the foot­steps of Ernest Shack­le­ton on an Aurora Ex­pe­di­tions/Aus­tralian Geo­graphic So­ci­ety joint ex­pe­di­tion. It’s early au­tumn (March, 2017) and with me is a group of 50 ea­ger would-be po­lar ad­ven­tur­ers – Aus­tralians mostly, in­clud­ing many AG sub­scribers, but among them are Ki­wis and a few guests from the UK, USA, Canada and Ire­land.

There’s a Rus­sian crew and an ex­pert team of ex­pe­di­tion lead­ers, naturalists and guides, along with reg­u­lar AG con­trib­u­tor Alas­dair McGre­gor, on board as our Antarc­tic his­to­rian and Shack­le­ton ex­pert.

All are united by a will­ing­ness to par­tic­i­pate ea­gerly in ev­ery­thing that a small-ship ex­pe­di­tion such as this has to of­fer dur­ing 18 days of ad­ven­ture and dis­cov­ery as we jour­ney south from Patag­o­nia across the no­to­ri­ous Drake Pas­sage to­wards the Antarc­tic Penin­sula. We’ll even­tu­ally in­ter­sect with Shack­le­ton’s jour­ney from the Wed­dell Sea to Ele­phant Is­land, turn­ing north­east across the Sco­tia Sea to South Ge­or­gia and even­tu­ally back west to the Falk­land Is­lands.

Among us are four ex­pe­ri­enced climbers – two men and two women – who will be re­trac­ing Shack­le­ton’s haz­ardous tra­verse of South Ge­or­gia from King Haakon Bay on the south-west coast to Strom­ness on the north. When­ever pos­si­ble, they’re off the ship at first light to climb pre­cip­i­tous, icy slopes and crevassed glaciers to pre­pare for the big chal­lenge. Oth­ers take to the wa­ter in kayaks led by guide Al Bakker, while most board a f leet of inf lat­able rafts, or Zo­di­acs, to land on the shorelines of the Antarc­tic Penin­sula.

I’m among the kayak­ers, although I al­ter­nate be­tween the kayaks and Zo­di­acs, keen to be among the grow­ing ca­ma­raderie of the big group. I’m a sunny day paddler at best, used to the shal­low tepid wa­ters of Syd­ney’s rivers and in­lets. But the chance to try my skills in these choppy, chilly wa­ters is too good to re­sist.

On course for ad­ven­ture

Our route along the Antarc­tic Penin­sula de­liv­ers a sur­pris­ing va­ri­ety of ex­pe­ri­ences, en­vi­ron­ments and wild en­coun­ters. We meet en­gag­ing lit­tle chin­strap and gen­too pen­guins on Aitcho Is­land in the South Shet­land ar­chi­pel­ago where what looks from afar like a dust­ing of fine pow­dery snow turns out to be feath­ers from moult­ing gen­toos.

Our ship threads its way through tricky Nep­tune’s Bel­lows, a nar­row cleft in the outer ram­parts of De­cep­tion Is­land, to en­ter the caldera of this ac­tive vol­cano that erupted as re­cently as 1969. It’s pro­vided refuge for many a ves­sel tossed about in the sur­round­ing wild seas. Pro­tected from the el­e­ments, we ex­plore rem­nants of whal­ing days here and the hangar and run­way from where Hu­bert Wilkins made the f irst ever Antarc­tic f light, in 1928.

Af­ter days of is­land hop­ping, we even­tu­ally come ashore on the con­ti­nent it­self at Par­adise Bay. The warm sun beats down

Wild and free

We awake in the splen­dour of King Haakon Bay, on the south­west side of South Ge­or­gia, close to where the James Caird f in­ally found a safe land­ing. Small groups of king pen­guins can be seen along the shore, the first we’ve seen this trip. They are, un­doubt­edly, the hand­somest of all pen­guin species and once we’re ashore they size us up, keen to get a closer look at this equally uni­form-look­ing bunch of new ar­rivals in iden­ti­cal blue-and­grey stan­dard-is­sue Aurora Ex­pe­di­tions wind­proof jack­ets.

The wind fun­nels down the glaciers along the steep, jagged moun­tain chain that runs the length of the is­land as we step through the mounds of green tus­sock grass that char­ac­terise South Ge­or­gia’s lower hills and val­leys. Al­most every tus­sock con­tains a sweet lit­tle fur seal pup, younger and more timid than those we’ll meet later at Sal­is­bury Plain. We stum­ble across hud­dles of moult­ing adult ele­phant seals hid­den among the grasses, an­nounc­ing their ir­ri­ta­tion at our pres­ence with belches, groans and f lat­u­lent out­bursts.

We spot tiny South Ge­or­gia pip­its dart­ing in the surf. These del­i­cate brown song­birds look out of place in the rugged po­lar ter­rain but they’re tough lit­tle crea­tures that have been the benef iciary of an am­bi­tious pest-erad­i­ca­tion project run by the South Ge­or­gia Her­itage Trust to rid the is­land of in­tro­duced ro­dents, which drove them to the brink of ex­tinc­tion. The pip­its have bounced back in great num­bers and we spot them all over the is­land. Fur seals, once dec­i­mated by the seal­ing in­dus­try, have also re­cov­ered and are said to num­ber some 3 mil­lion on South Ge­or­gia.

The moun­taineers set off on their over­land trek in the foot­steps of Shack­le­ton, Tom Crean and Frank Wors­ley. We meet them again a cou­ple of days later and join them for the f inal 7km of their tra­verse just above the old whal­ing sta­tion at Strom­ness but, mean­while, Po­lar Pi­o­neer heads off to ex­plore the in­dented coast­line of this unique bi­o­log­i­cal hotspot, on the look­out for whales, nest­ing wan­der­ing al­ba­tross and other pen­guin species, notably mac­a­ro­nis, of which there are more than 1 mil­lion pairs on the is­land.

Such rich­ness of life is the re­sult of South Ge­or­gia’s geo­graph­i­cal po­si­tion. The 170km-long cres­cent-shaped isle lies just south of the Antarc­tic Con­ver­gence, where warmer sub­trop­i­cal wa­ters meet colder Antarc­tic wa­ters. Its prox­im­ity to the South Amer­i­can main­land and milder cli­mate pro­vide an en­vi­ron­ment where a great va­ri­ety of f lora and fauna are able to colonise and thrive.

The weather here is mostly cold, windy and wet but oc­ca­sion­ally the clouds dis­si­pate, the winds drop and the sun comes out. Sum­mer tem­per­a­tures above 26oC have been recorded here, al­beit rarely, and the daily tem­per­a­ture av­er­ages about 1.8oC. Dur­ing our week of ex­plo­ration the sun shines much of the time and by the time we’re toast­ing Ernest Shack­le­ton, ‘The Boss’, at his f inal rest­ing place in Grytviken ceme­tery, we’ve di­vested our­selves of down jack­ets, gloves and hats and en­joy ex­plor­ing the old whal­ing sta­tion in warm af­ter­noon sun­shine.

What an ad­ven­ture we’ve had. Antarc­tica has been top of my wish list for 20 years but this isn’t some­where you sim­ply tick off. It’s im­pos­si­ble not to be changed by this en­vi­ron­ment or the ex­plo­sion of life here. Steeped in the legacy of the Heroic Era and rich in the wild­ness of a place far re­moved from the rav­ages of hu­mankind, but not im­mune to them, we have been priv­i­leged to set foot in these pre­cious places.

No, I’m not tick­ing it off. It’s the last fron­tier – a truly wild and, mostly, pris­tine con­ti­nent and once you let it into your heart, it will un­doubt­edly call you back again and again.

It’s im­pos­si­ble not to be changed by this en­vi­ron­ment or the ex­plo­sion of life here.

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Ex­pe­di­tion ship Po­lar Pi­o­neer nav­i­gates her way through patchy brash ice into Par­adise Bay on the Antarc­tic Penin­sula.

Antarc­tic fur seals were hunted to near ex­tinc­tion on the South Ge­or­gia main­land dur­ing the 18th and 19th cen­turies. Num­bers have re­cov­ered and to­day’s pop­u­la­tion is es­ti­mated to be close to 3 mil­lion.

Dur­ing 18 days, the 2018-19 voy­age will ex­plore the Antarc­tic main­land and is­lands and ven­ture to the wildlife hotspot of South Ge­or­gia.

Kayak­ers en­joy the un­usu­ally balmy con­di­tions in aptly named Par­adise Bay along the west coast of the Antarc­tic Penin­sula.

The four climbers and their guides pre­pare to raise a glass to ‘The Boss’ at Shack­le­ton’s grave in Grytviken af­ter re­trac­ing his May 1916 tra­verse of the is­land with two com­pan­ions.

The pas­sen­gers care­fully ne­go­ti­ate the last phase of a 7km walk that will bring them down a loose scree slope into an old whal­ing sta­tion at Strom­ness on South Ge­or­gia.

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